The Real Rip-Off Report

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That's the Internet for you. And if Magedson is virtually anonymous in Maricopa County, where he's lived for almost two decades, he's famous on the Internet.

Before the Internet became ubiquitous, you could only humiliate someone if you had connections, if you could get the attention of a newspaper reporter or were willing to picket in front of an office. Today, you can get revenge with just a few keystrokes — and face revenge just as easily.

Magedson (pronounced MAJ-id-sen) has been on both sides.

He claims that it doesn't bother him. "When people stop suing me, and stop talking about me, and stop threatening me, that's when I'll have to worry," he says during an early conversation. In the course of being interviewed for the story, he'll repeat the statement no fewer than three times.

Magedson came late to computers, and he's still not, by any means, a techie. But he latched on to a successful Internet game plan in the mid-'90s, even before the dot-com frenzy began, and he never wavered. In its eight years of operation, his Web site has managed to do what so few Web sites have done: It found readers. Today, it's even making money.

The site is called the Rip-Off Report. A clearinghouse for customer complaints, it boasts 8 billion hits, more than 225,000 user-written "reports" on various companies, and enough unsubstantiated allegations to make a CEO contemplate suicide.

The Rip-Off Report's power comes from its technical mastery. Before many people had even heard of Google, the Rip-Off Report had figured out how to land at the top of its searches. In other words, Google a company's name, and almost immediately you get a report trashing the business — far more interesting than a corporate Web site.

Companies that haven't spent millions on marketing or on a major Web presence are particularly susceptible: Zazou Model Management, the Rebate Processing Center. But even Primerica, the well-known financial services division of Citigroup, hasn't been immune. Google the company, and the Rip-Off Report is in the top three links.

And so customers who couldn't get a return call from a service rep, much less a TV station, suddenly have the online equivalent of a megaphone.

But www.RipOffReport.com isn't just a place to vent: Class-action lawyers, government investigators and reporters all use it to find victims. Not coincidentally, it's been credited with torpedoing more than one lousy business — and given Magedson a national reputation as a consumer advocate and a First Amendment warrior.

He relishes that role. Talking about his work, he tends to slip into the third person, as if he's dreaming aloud about how his story should be told.

"Ed knows it's sweeps week when he gets calls from reporters around the country looking for scams," he says, then repeats it later for good measure. Or, "Ed was formulating what he wanted to do . . ."

For all his self-aggrandizement, Magedson is well aware that his advocacy persona has lately come under fire. (Initially, he urged New Times to check out the threats he's faced and the lawsuits against him, only to e-mail later how "disappointed" he is that his worst critic has been interviewed.)

Just as Magedson has spent his life dogging people in power, now people are dogging him. More than a dozen companies have sued him. And, though he initially denies it, court records show that he's sued at least one business owner, too.

He revels in his role as a true-blue advocate. But with at least 30 companies now paying him to mitigate bad reports on his Web site, Magedson is facing sticky ethical questions.

Critics ask how he can accept payment from the same companies that he claims to be fighting — especially when he used to be so critical of the Better Business Bureau for the same thing.

And if he's using reports with dubious accuracy to pad his own pockets, does that make him a First Amendment champion — or an extortionist?

Fifty-five years old, raised on Long Island, Magedson has the nasal voice of a movie sidekick — think Bruno Kirby in When Harry Met Sally . . . , whom he somewhat resembles. But his hair is pure "Weird Al" Yankovic: Almost entirely bald on top, he wears it long and curly everywhere else.

This isn't vanity, a middle-aged man posing as a kid. Instead, it's the remnant of a hippie past, Magedson's way of clinging to his outsider status even today.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske